Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Long Do Tires Last?

Here's a question that came up recently in a Madison rewrite and reminded me of a similar question in Earth Abides. How long do rubber tires take to decompose? How long are they usable?

Naturally, these are two different questions.
1. How long does rubber exist as a discrete compound?
2. How long do rubber tires hold air and maintain their integrity?

The guys at Tire Tech Information present findings from several manufacturers. To quote:

"How many years will tires last before aging out? Unfortunately it's impossible to predict when tires should be replaced based on their calendar age alone."

Many things contribute to the wear of tires including usage, environmental conditions, sunlight and pollution. For instance, going at top speed may wear out the tires, but not using them at all may also damage them. Living near the ocean is bad for tires, but so is living in places with lots of air pollution. I would guess that driving or parking near industrial areas would be bad for tires. You should see the cars driven by paper mill employees in my town. Hardly a lick of paint is left on the hoods of these cars. Imagine what it does to the rest of the vehicle.

The British Rubber Manufacturers' recommendations as quoted by Tire Tech:

"Environmental conditions like exposure to sunlight and coastal climates, as well as poor storage and infrequent use, accelerate the aging process. In ideal conditions, a tyre may have a life expectancy that exceeds ten years from its date of manufacture. However, such conditions are rare."

In Madison, usable tires are hard to find but still available. This is Oregon, one of the sweetest climates for automobiles. No salt on the roads, no excessive heat. Very little sunshine (not today, thank goodness). So I push for the upper end of tire usability—ten years and a little after.

Since bicycle tires aren't as heavily bonded to other materials, are easier to maintain, and their use isn't as extreme, I would guess they last more than ten years.

Rubber itself lasts a very long time. In fact, we don't know exactly how long it lasts or when it decomposes, since we've only been throwing it in our landfills for a little over a hundred years. This is a good reminder when visualizing what's left in the PA world. Evidently, tires will be breeding mosquitoes in ditches and junkyards forever. Think about the reefs that were supposedly "stabilized" with old tires. The stupid things are still there after decades, grinding away all life. Go here to read what recyclers say about tires.

I had a very kind and thoughtful rejection from an agent today—timely too, if anyone's paying attention. It's given me a lot to think about, and I may have more to say such things later. In the meantime, Yola is holding forth on her blog, cracking the whip and being generally disgraceful. Go kiss the ring and debase yourself in whatever way you think she'd like.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Revision or Why I Keep So Many Drafts

Everyone has ideas, but good ones…oh, they come from the source. Like most writers, I have ideas that exist in all their platonic beauty on the upper shelf, where I can't quite reach them. We love to talk about where ideas come from, but it's harder to talk about how and why the final object comes out looking so plain when the idea is still sitting on the shelf glowing. I have short stories that take years to complete. Maybe I'm waiting for the moment the idea loses its power over me so that I can focus on what's good enough about the story.

Anyway, we're not going to talk about the idea triumvirate—getting them, keeping them, letting them go. What I'd like to resolve for myself is how revision can support a good idea or kill it. Also known as Why I Keep So Many Drafts.

I'm going to use the first paragraphs of Madison as an example. As I've said before, I wrote this novel in a white heat last summer. It shows.

From June 28, 2008:
Cooksey wasn't memorable except for the fact he could read. The first time I noticed him we were all on lunch break and he had a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire open on his lap.

I walked over. "Do you think it's an apt comparison?"

He looked up at me, one more stringy-haired, beat stranger who'd come to the valley to work for my dad. "Have you read it?"

"Saw the movie."

"Madison!" yelled Dad. He never liked us talking to the migrants.

What did I know, as the author that you can't see in the text? This is a PA world and there are no movies. Madison is the most popular baby name for 2008. Madison is a girl. At this point I didn't know who Cooksey was or why Dad was so grouchy about migrants. What was the most important thing about this for me? Madison is curious, mouthy, a little rebellious. I was working on her voice.

From September 1, 2008, the first time my critique group saw it:

In a world with no television, people ought to be reading. That was my opinion. Yet I never saw anyone do it until a migrant named Tierney pulled out a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and started to read it during lunch break.

I carried the water bucket over to him. "Do you think it's an apt comparison?"

He looked up, one more stringy-haired, beat stranger who'd come to the valley to work for Dad. "Have you read it?"

"Saw the movie."

"Madison!" yelled Dad. He never liked us talking to the migrants.

The lead male has a new name. I use Cooksey for another character in the book so it's not lost. Still love the name. And honestly? Even now I'm not sure I like Tierney. It has an ambiguous pronunciation and it's Irish which seems like overkill since my last name is too. I just don't know.

I'm still married to the book in this version. What did I like about it? I had in mind an old Everyman edition, cloth cover, red, with gold lettering. Foxed pages. In my childhood home the Everymans were on the highest, dustiest shelf. It would probably be among the last books you'd burn if you were freezing to death. Also, it reminded me of my father, a little personal Easter egg for him so he'd know I'd been paying attention as a child.

The movie thing—well, I knew it was going to be a joke later on when readers understood there hadn't been a film industry in ten years. What I liked about it was Madison's punchy, ironic yet juvenile response. That was the essence I wanted when I wrote the line and the reason I kept it through two drafts (that or laziness).

Beat is still here, beat in the original beatnik sense, which I imagined might make a comeback in a PA world. And if it didn't, I was going to make it come back by using it 500 times throughout the novel. I was riding that dead horse but good.

What's good? "I carried the water bucket over to him." This action raises a lot of questions. It's the first tool we see in the book. And M. is doing something besides running her mouth.

What's bad? "That was my opinion." If there's one thing you don't need in a first person narrative, that would be it. But I'm still voice building so I forgive myself. Notice I kept the equally pedantic line about an apt comparison. I'm in love with my PA world and I'm writing too much. But M's smart and that's important to me—and her. The line is a place-holder for the perfect smart question that will arrive as if by magic from my crit partners.

From January 31, 2009:

The first time I saw anyone read a book on the farm was when a man named Tierney pulled out a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire during lunch break.

When Dad wasn't looking, I carried the water bucket over to him. "Do you know how to read?"

He wasn't much, just one more stringy-haired stranger who'd come to the valley looking for work. "Do you?"

"Madison!" yelled Dad. He never liked me talking to men.

"I learned." I ladled water into Tierney's bowl and went to the next person.

This is very close to a final version. I've still got the Everyman in the first para, but I've removed the preachy opening line, the movie reference, and beat. I feel like M is responding to something she might actually see in her life—a guy a reading—and she's asking a question she might really want to know the answer to.

By now, I have finished writing the novel and I don't feel like I have to prove anything on the first page. Just tell the story.

Also, I switched out the word migrant. I hit that word hard in the next para, so I don't care about making a point here. What's important to me is M's tiny act of rebellion—she says something to Tierney after dad calls her off.


From April or May 2009:

The first time I saw anyone read on the farm was when a man named Tierney pulled a book from his back pocket during lunch break.

When Dad wasn't looking, I carried the water bucket over to him. "Do you know how to read?"

He wasn't much to look at, another stranger who'd come to the valley looking for work. But I liked his eyes. Blue. "Do you?"

Dad came back from the barn. "Madison!" He didn't like me talking to the help, especially men.

"I learned how." I ladled water into Tierney's bowl. "What's the book called?"

He uncurled the paper cover. "It's a dictionary."

"Madison, what does it take?" yelled Dad. "An engraved invitation?"

Dictionary. I carried the bucket to the next person. I'd never seen one of those.

The Everyman is gone. No one cares but me anyway. Even my father probably won't care—he'll be too busy wondering why Dad in my book is such a loudmouth.

Blue eyes, no stringy hair. He's the romantic lead, okay? Other people have to fall in love with him too, especially the author. When I made this change, I built up the romance in the rest of the book. Maybe I was swallowing a bitter pill, but there have to be BIG motivations for these people.

Now we see that Dad was away and has just come back—when the cat's away the mice will play. Tierney has a bowl for his water, not a cup. What kind of place is this? And the big change—a dictionary. I still may be a little enamored of this idea so don't be surprised if I cut it later. Books are rare in this world, reading isn't taught. For an educated man like Tierney, a dictionary might be a precious object. Words themselves might be precious. And how many times have we all tossed aside some battered paperback Websters in this world? Think about paperbacks and plastic water bottles and Styrofoam takeout containers. Might they have value in a PA world?

And over all, this little scene has two more lines of dialogue. It's more of a conversation now and it lasts a tiny bit longer. I am trusting these people to do and say what they want to advance the story.

Have I preserved the idea through all these rewrites? Yes and no. Madison is not exactly a mouthy smartass in this last iteration. I haven't rung any PA bells. Instead, I've established a few key elements that I hope will grow in the rest of the story:
  • There is something off about this reality.
  • Tierney is attractive.
  • Madison is curious and bold.
  • Dad gets angry a little too quickly.
  • It's a farm.

One idea is started and completed: That's a book. Do you read? Yes, I learned how.

Lesson over. What am I reading? I finished The Sparrow. What a book! I highly recommend it. I'm now reading the third Moe Prager. It's just, yeah. I love Reed Farrell Coleman. I love the idea of RFC. I adore Moe. But, hmm.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

HP Lovecraft, Spatial Explicity

Here's something I never thought I'd do in public: discuss HP Lovecraft.

I was driven to do this because I just finished The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. It is a big, attractive hardcover release about vampires. These are your worm-like, Klaus Kinski / 'Salem's Lot vampires. Klaus is insanely beautiful AND does a good Nosferatu. Not everyone can do that.

(CUT long para describing the three species of vampires and their complete literary history)

The Strain is another telling of the Bram Stoker classic. Think of it as CSI Dracula. I couldn't put it down until, oh, about half way through when it turns into Hot Zone Dracula. One infection after another. No surprise that the vampires are going to get ahead of the silly humans, right? Still, there are some nice touches in the book.

What does this have to do with Lovecraft? The evil nemesis is named Eldritch. By using this fine old Lovecraft word, I believe the authors were trying to summon the idea of The Old Ones, and apply it to their equally old master vampire. But by starting with the Dracula story I, the reader, could not shake my preconceptions of previous vampire masters from other novels and movies. In this I was not disappointed. The new boss was the same as the old.

So this got me thinking about why the Lovecraft reference didn't work in this context, and I came up with two conclusions. The first is the most obvious: By giving the vampire master in The Strain so many walk-ons, he was scary but he certainly wasn't mysterious or unknown. The second observation is that Lovecraft fiction is always spatially explicit. More about that in a minute.

How do you know when you're reading Lovecraft?
Others can summarize far better, but I recognize HPL when I read about the existence of a horror from beyond that influences and feeds upon human society, yet remains mostly hidden until some bright guy follows a thread that leads to ultimate knowledge. This knowledge includes the futility and meaningless of human life in the face of this indestructible force. After the revelation, our bright guy is insane.

(CUT self-serving para about how serial killer porn is a form of HPL.)

In the viral model of vampire lit, vampires quickly overwhelm their host community, they're lurking on every threshold and chaos reigns but vampires are for the most part visible and easy to kill. Even the master can be killed. A call to arms results in a final cleansing, and even if some survive, we still have the refuge of daylight. It's essentially hopeful, and so is The Strain (despite the fact the authors are promising two more of these books). I would not say that Lovecraft is hopeful, except for the notion that knowledge of the true nature of the world is always better than ignorance.

Let's look at this spatial, geographical issue. In Lovecraft there is another world, an unsafe world, cocooned within ours. Maybe it's underground, in sub-basements. Maybe it's in some twisted streets in a bad part of town that you could swear weren't there yesterday. Maybe it's Antarctica—inaccessible to most but very much a part of our world. But in each story, it's a real place and the evil inhabits it.

A modern author who owns the Lovecraft geography is Peter Straub. Sometimes it is just a scent, while in other novels he dives in. But it is always present, a delicate awareness of place that exists outside our daily awareness. Straub is probably the only author who's given me dreams. Note I didn't say bad dreams. Just dreams… because I want to find those places too.

Anne Rice does good geography and atmosphere, but it is not hidden or unknown. Like her vampires, the places are normal because the vampires make them normal. The Strain attempts to define territory by using the subway system under the ruins of the World Trade Center, and making a point about how vampires are drawn to places of tragedy and evil. But the geography was predictable. Nasty, but not inhuman. The chance the authors had to inculcate that place with powerful evil was lost, even though they had modern tragedy at their finger tips.

Another guy who does great spatial evil is Mikal Gilmore in Shot in the Heart. Every place he talks about has a dreamy, Lovecraftian sense of disorientation. I'm familiar with many of the Oregon locations. They are truly haunted for me now, as if the tragedy had been present all along and I just hadn't seen it.

From a writer's point of view, setting does half the work of characterization. Say the words Derry, Carpathia, Crouch End. You know where you are. The Eldritch name set me up to expect perilous dis-location, when The Strain is a more traditional vampire story.

Who is my favorite vampire of all time? The terrifying and dangerously sexy Gary Oldman. Every girl needs a guy like that to lure her away from hearth and home.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Done and Doneness

Another week of checking the inbox 50 times a day. I'm beginning to train myself off the blogs and back to the NYT site. Yesterday I scrolled through the book section and read the BEA article. Small steps, right?

I added another five submissions to the seven that were already out. Since they were all on my list, not spontaneous screams in the wilderness, I feel a restful sense of accomplishment. I've gotten three rejections, two extremely timely and the other within the limits posted on the web site.

In re: Madison. Don't get me wrong, I may be temporarily finished with revision but it still needs attention. Because I'm so invested in it, the world, the characters, the direction of the novel, I find that revision is like peeling an onion. The more I revise, the more is revealed. I had a moment when I realized something I wrote six months ago is a great idea that could—without much tweaking—change the entire novel into exactly what I wanted it to be. It's so cool. Since I can't remember what I thought I was saying when I originally wrote it, I don't know if I was trying for this, or if my subconscious snuck one in.

Met with the Yolas on Saturday and they pointed out some motivational issues. Now that's the kind of thing I should have caught before I decided the novel was done! Madison is not complicated structurally, but it does seem like a hydra. Or Whac-a-Mole. Nail one thing down, another pops up. Put like this I don't know if it will ever be done done.

So let's talk about doneness.

Every writing/editing/agenting site rails on about not submitting until a project is done. Although this is very good advice, and not always easy to follow, I struggle with the definition:

Done is what, exactly? Is it two complete drafts and a polish? After the last read, the novel stands? Okay, I know the answer to this question, but it's important to note that done is a relative thing, shifting its definition from day to day. Even a first draft can be a done thing when it demonstrates the scope and depth of an idea. Not a done novel, but certainly a done idea.

Then there are times when everything looks like crap and the concept of a finished product is as alien as fish on the moon.

Finally there's trust. You simply have to get up one morning and decide that the only person you are going to trust with the big stuff is yourself. Am I a good enough writer? Does this novel do what I want? You are the only one who can—or should—answer these questions. Done is when you say it's done.

I can go back and forth about it. Because writers need readers. Too much critiquing from your worthy writing partners can suck the life out of almost anything. If it can be killed, they'll kill it. Maybe someone suggests you have zombies on the first page which is not a bad idea, all books should. Just not YOUR book. Maybe you see the confusion on their little faces and realize you have been writing in Sanskrit this whole time. But a good group will engage at both the idea level and the grammatical level. Hence the notes about Madison and motivation, a kickable offense but not one that's hard to fix.

So, is Madison done? Two drafts, a polish and a read by others would indicate that by most standards it's sort of done. But I still have an uneasy feeling about it, like I left the stove on. Maybe because I did a very (for me) risky thing. I left a lot of questions unanswered. I didn't hang an HEA on it. Not that the characters haven't earned it. Maybe it's the unfinished nature of the world, or the fact that so many people die. I just don't think an HEA is a fair summation of the experience. For me or them. (By the way, I'm not saying the main characters don't get what they want in the end. They do, all of them.)

Still, I don't entirely trust my judgment about the ending. Maybe I will someday. This is where I say Madison is done as far as everyone else is concerned, but not for me. Not yet.

What am I reading? I made it to page 160 of The Sparrow. It's the kind of book where a lot is happening but when I look at the page number, I realize I've barely cracked it. Maybe I'm getting a little crush on Emilio Sandoz. He's real cute. Love is a beautiful thing.